Friday, 24 May 2013

Nature is full of surprises...

Over the last two years I've been working with local schools in Southmead, Bristol, taking students on visits to the local nature reserve, Badock's Wood. Throughout the seasons students have explored the woodlands, wildflower meadows and hedgerows discovering an abundance of wildlife living in their neighbourhood.

 This project has been kindly supported by the Airbus Corporate Foundation to engage young people with the biodiversity in their area and as part of this project a new wildlife pond was created last year. Unfortunately, the pond suffered a fair bit of vandalism as soon as it was created, with benches being pulled out of the ground, plants ripped up and rubbish thrown in the water. Nevertheless, students from surrounding schools have been learning about freshwater life and went to look at the pond at every opportunity.

Last week was the first opportunity the pupils had to properly explore the pond, so we set off with nets, trays, identification keys, bug jars and a belly full of enthusiasm. Having visited the site a few days previously I was a little skeptical as to what we would find.The pond was brown with mud, there were no plants and I could see that someone had already added fish in the water which is never good news if you are looking to create a biodiverse pond as they devour the invertebrates, tadpoles, and anything else they can find.

After a health and safety briefing and a quick chat about how to use the equipment, students eagerly started to explore. Working in groups they took turns to take samples from the pond, emptying their findings into trays so that they could identify the species.

One of the first species to be found was a Greater Water boatmen. These strong swimmers swim on their back using their strong legs, which are covered in tiny hairs, to propel themselves through the water. All aquatic bugs lack gills and therefore have to come to the water’s surface to breathe air. However, Water boatmen have a clever trick that allows them to remain under water for longer. They collect air as a bubble on their body or under their wings; this allows them to breathe when underwater. When we looked carefully, using a bug jar full of water, we could see the little silver bubble at the end of it's abdomen as it dived down.
Common backswimmer - Mark Robinson - Mark Robinson

Male Water boatmen breed once a year and  use sound to attract females by rubbing their front legs against a ridge on their head to create a low chirping noise. Females lay their eggs on submerged plants, sticks, or rocks; allowing a brood of young Water boatman to hatch out straight into the water.

Pond skater - -
We also discovered pond skaters. These seemingly relaxed looking creatures, live on the surface of the water, spreading their long legs out and using the water tension to keep them afloat. But don't be fooled, really they are waiting for the chance to snack on dead or dying insects that have fallen into the water.They have sensitive hairs on their  bodies and legs to detect vibrations and ripples on the pond surface and using their sharp mouth parts they pierce the skin of their prey and then suck out their insides.
Most excitingly, we found a pair of breeding palmate newts. Male palmate newts can be identified by their large, black, webbed feet.They are darker in colour than the females who tend to be a more olive-green colour. Newts are amphibians and they enter the pond in the Spring to mate. The males swim around in an elaborate dance to attract the females who wrap each of their eggs individually in vegetation around the pond. At the end of the summer, adult newts will leave the pond and find a suitable home under some stones or logs perhaps,feeding off small invertebrates such as beetles. We were very surprised and pleased to discover them living in the pond at Badock's Wood nature reserve.
Pair of palmate newts
Male palmate newt
In addition to the fish, newts, Greater water boatman and pond skaters we found some tadpoles, diving beetles, great pond snails and water fleas so there was life in the pond after all! One of the main problems in this pond is the lack of plants and the muddy water. This is quite possibly due to dogs running in and out of the pond and stirring up the sediment - the lack of light reaching into the water impacts on the ability of the plants to grow. The students are now being very proactive about this and the school is running a poster competition to let people in the wider community know why it is important to protect this potentially great habitat. So fingers crossed, this time next year it could be a different story.

After the pond dipping we went down to the River Trym which flows through the nature reserve. Using this as a comparison to the pond we discovered that it was much more abundant in species. Biological indicators such as freshwater shrimps and mayfly larvae also suggested that it was a pretty healthy habitat too.With the newly informed wildlife explorers from Badock's Wood primary school on the case I feel pretty confident that the nature reserve will continue to go from strength to strength.
Stream dipping in the River Trym

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